Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mary and Martha: Sisters or lesbian couple?

Mary and Martha by Bernardino Luini

Mary and Martha of Bethany were two of Jesus’ closest friends. The Bible calls them “sisters” who lived together, but reading the Bible with queer eyes raises another possibility. Maybe Mary and Martha were a lesbian couple. Their feast day is July 29.

Mary and Martha formed a nontraditional family at a time when there was huge pressure for heterosexual marriage.

As Rev. Nancy Wilson wrote in the brochure “Our Story Too: Reading the Bible with ‘New’ Eyes”:

“Jesus loved Lazarus, Mary and Martha. What drew Jesus to this very non-traditional family group of a bachelor brother living with two spinster sisters? Two barren women and a eunuch are Jesus’ adult family of choice. Are we to assume they were all celibate heterosexuals? What if Mary and Martha were not sisters but called each other ‘sister’ as did most lesbian couples throughout recorded history?”

(“Our Story Too” was first published in 1992 by Metropolitan Community Churches and is still one of the most advanced texts on LGBT people in the Bible.)

Mary and Martha are best known for the conflict they had when they hosted Jesus and his disciples. Mary sat at Jesus’ feet to listen, but Martha wanted her to help her serve. Jesus’ famous answer: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42).

In another major Bible story, Jesus talks with Mary and Martha in turn before raising their brother Lazarus from the dead. During the conversation, Martha speaks what may be the first profession of faith in Jesus: “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world” (John 11:27).

Like with most Biblical figures, the truth about Mary and Martha is a mystery. The gospels references are brief and sometimes contradictory. As a result, Mary of Bethany is identified as Mary Magdalene in the Roman Catholic church, while in Protestant and Eastern Orthodox traditions they are considered separate persons.

The Orthodox Church also includes Mary and Martha among the “myrrh bearing women” who were faithfully present at his crucifixion and brought myrrh to his tomb, where they became the first to witness his resurrection. Christian feminists also honor the sisters and say that they probably were leaders of a “house church.”

I’d love to see a contemporary artist show Mary and Martha as a loving lesbian couple. Is anybody out there ready for the challenge? I hope to see these images soon! Meanwhile, art history provides some beautiful paintings of the “sisters,” including the one above by Italian Renaissance artist Bernardino Luini (1480 -1532).

I explored the happy possibility of Mary and Martha as a lesbian couple in my novels “Jesus in Love” and “At the Cross.” I will close with the scene from “Jesus in Love” in which Jesus blesses the relationship of Mary and Martha.  It's a kind of same-sex marriage. Jesus, the narrator, tells the story:

The sisters were still making my bed. I realized that they were dawdling over the task in hopes of talking with me. As soon as I tore myself away from direct contact with the Holy Spirit, the women’s longing for me drew me like a magnet. Tenderness toward them welled up in me, and I decided that I had time for one more human conversation that night. I walked over and saw Martha smoothing out every wrinkle from a woolen blanket spread over my mat, while Mary-Beth was arranging and rearranging a pillow for me.

“Thanks,” I said again as I sat on the blanket and looked in their eyes: Mary-Beth’s dark and generous, Martha’s just as dark, but receptive. It was the first time we three had been alone together. Divine energy traced pretty triangles at it poured from me into Martha and from her to Mary-Beth, then back to me. Sometimes it reversed its course, repeating the cycle in the opposite direction. The Holy Spirit reigned over us, providing a kind of filter that purified our energies and prevented one person’s disturbances from merging into the others. The flow of sacred love between Martha and Mary-Beth was always strong, no matter which way it traveled.

“Your teaching tonight was fantastic!” Mary-Beth said, clapping her pudgy hands together for emphasis. “Martha and I have been hoping and praying for years for God to guide us to someone like you. You are going to lead our people to true liberation. You are the best on earth!”

I smiled and let it feel good as she went on like that for a while. Mary-Beth’s words kept growing louder and faster. “We want you to know that you are always welcome in our home. In fact, please treat this as your own home.”

Martha managed to slip in a sentence. “We discussed it with Lazarus, and we all agreed.”

“That’s right,” Mary-Beth enthused. “Please come here whenever you want and stay as long as you want. You can come even if you just need a quiet place to pray. We won’t interrupt you.”

“Even though we’re interrupting your prayers right now.” Martha’s sly wit made us all laugh.

“I feel at home with you. I’ll be back,” I agreed.

A not-quite-satisfactory silence stretched among us.

“I thought there was something more you wanted to tell me,” I prompted them.

There was, but there wasn’t. The sisters looked at each other, unable to speak. They had longed for my attention and approval, but now that they had it, the intensity of my love was almost unbearable to them. They had invited me into their house, and here I was, knocking at the door to their hearts.

The goodness of who they were, of who God had created them to be, was hidden from them behind layers of shame. Their silent, futile struggle to hide the full extent of themselves and their beautiful relationship moved me to speak in compassion. “Everything hidden will be revealed, and everything secret will come to light,” I assured them.

Fear made them convert to a closed, vacant politeness that they thought would appease me. “We have to go,” Martha said preemptively. “We’ll get you some more bedding.”

I put a hand on her shoulder for a moment, holding her back. “No. Enough serving me. Enough listening to me. Go ahead and speak to me.”

An awkward silence arose as each sister waited for the other to speak up. Mary-Beth was full of bluster, but when it came time to say something difficult, Martha was the braver one.

She took the lead now. “Well, you’ve been so open with us that we thought we should be more honest with you about who we are. Lazarus isn’t our biological brother. We all decided to move in together and be a family because none of us wants to get married. We all look after each other.”

Martha drew a deep breath and began to stammer as I gave her my kindest look. “Mary-Beth and I told you that we were sisters, but we’re not sisters by blood. We’ love.” Unable to find any more words, Martha took her sister-lover’s hand and held it in my lap.

“If people knew what we do, they would say that we gave up natural intercourse with men and are consumed with passion for each other,” Mary-Beth explained.

I had sensed their real relationship from the start, but their honesty opened a floodgate between us. I couldn’t find words that would convey my feelings to them, either, so I held their hands in mine and bowed my head to place a long, gentle kiss on their clasped hands. Divine love surged powerfully among the three of us. Now their souls invited my divine heart into their relationship and we forged a stable triangle with me at the apex. Their souls began a lifelong kiss.

When I looked up and saw their bright eyes, the right words came to me. “May nobody separate what God has united.”

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This post is part of the GLBT Saints series at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints and holy people of special interest to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

 Jesus in Love

Icons of Martha and Mary of Bethany and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at


Trudie said...

Why not both? There is, of course, a long tradition of unmarried sisters living together for their entire lives. I had two cousins who were in that category. Obviously, we need to acknowledge that in the male-dominated cultures of the past, often a pair of compatible women, whether blood-related or sexual partners or not, could form a strong family unit. I sincerely hope that the definition of alternative family can be broad enough to include those who are bound by love, whether they define themselves by homosexual terminology or not.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Trudie, I don’t mean to take Mary and Martha away from those who can identify with them as unmarried biological sisters. I’ve also seen them described as widows as if it were fact, when the Bible really says nothing about their marital status, leaving it all up to our imaginations.

I wrote this piece in hopes that more people would be able to connect with Mary and Martha, and thereby with Jesus and/or God. As you know, LGBT people have felt especially excluded from the Bible, so I’m making a special effort to include us. I share your hope that the definition of alternative family can be broad enough to include ALL those who are bound by love, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status.

I got a hint from Facebook that I’m on the right track, that many people can relate to the concept of Mary and Martha as a lesbian couple. Already within the first hour 4 friends clicked that they “liked” this post -- that’s a lot for the Jesus in Love Blog.

If you like Mary and Martha, click the title below to see a great new painting of them as contemporary women, Martha standing angrily with vacuum cleaner in hand as her sister listens to Jesus:

"In the House of Martha and Mary" by Eileen Kennedy at the Episcopal Cafe Art Blog

Terence Weldon said...

Trudie, you're right. The sharp distinctions between sexual categories is entirely artificial, and not always helpful. To me, the problem with compulsory heterosexuality is precisely that is forced and (in a global context) entirely unnatural, in both human and animal societies. This is why I far prefer to think in terms of "queer", to refer to anybody whose relationships or forms of sexual expression are not forced into an externally imposed straightjacket.

To me, the point of Martha and Mary is that in the social context of the time, two women living together instead of slotting into the overwhelming pressure to submit to husbands was extraordinary. Whatever they may or may not have done in bed, they were certainly strong women in open defiance of powerful social norms.

Definitely queer.

Trudie said...

I love the contemporary "Martha and Mary" painting by Eileen Kennedy. There has been so much wonderful reflection on this story, I definitely think it deserves frequent revisiting. Blessings.

Mareczku said...

What a beautiful story. It was wonderful to read.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Martha and Mary are not usually included on the lists of LGBT saints. I’d say that they’ve been hiding in plain sight, so familiar to Christians now that we tend to forget how “queer” their living arrangements were in Jesus’ day.

Special thanks to Terence for linking to this post on his aptly named “Queer Saints and Martyrs (and Others) Blog.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Welcome, Mareczku! I believe that this is your first comment here, but I hope that it won’t be your last. I see from your profile that you are active in your parish. You -- and all our readers -- are invited to be active on this blog by posting your comments.

Kalle af said...

Very interesting idea, indeed!
On one of my blogs, Hbt-bibeln (which is in Swedish), I look at different Bible passages and characters to show that they can be read inclusively. These two women will have to be included there as soon as I have the time.

Thank you!

Kittredge Cherry said...

Kalle Af, I’m glad you liked what I wrote about Ruth and Naomi at the Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts. I enjoyed visiting your blog.

Since this Blog is in Swedish, do you know the work of Swedish photographer Elisabeth Olson-Wallen? She does inclusive photos about the Bible and homosexuality.

I wrote about her work recently in a post titled “Religious Threats to LGBT people exposed in Jerusalem photos.” You can see it at this link:

Kalle af said...

I do, yes. Her work has stirred up quite a lot of controversy both in Sweden and in my country, Finland, over the last decade or so.
But no-one can deny that the photos often are quite beautiful!